Thursday, 1 November 2012

Book Review: Warrior Nation

Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety
By Ian MacKay and Jamie Swift, published by Between the Lines, Toronto, 2012

This is a thorough and topical examination of a concerted effort by governments and corporations in the last few years to repackage how Canadians see themselves and their role in the world. The authors trace the historical roots of this deliberate portrayal of Canadians as warriors above all else, and the political and economic interests that benefit from it.

They begin with an overview of how historians have seen and analyzed Canada. Many notable historians saw the core of our national identity in a gradual expansion of democratic and social rights like voting, medicare and collective bargaining, not in being part of the Anglosphere, the industrially and militarily world dominating empires headed formerly by Britain and now by the United States.  Most acknowledged our role in military initiatives but claimed our uniqueness as Canadians came from our peacekeeping and consensus building in the world.

But MacKay and Swift do not absolve Canadians from our role in the assault and plunder of the First Peoples of Canada in our goal to exploit the natural and mineral resources of our new country.  They recall our participation, as part of the old British Empire, in activities like the Boer War, which saw the creation of concentration camps and other atrocities, yet was acclaimed by the media at home as heroism. They also cover Canada’s part in the Great War and the shift that the media made from a brutal war of industrial scale killing over a few metres of mud to the birthplace of Canada as a nation.  A few historians have even taken some of the stories from the “War to End All Wars”, like the one of Vimy Ridge and built it up over the years so that it now overshadows the single line about peacekeeping in the citizenship test study guide for new Canadians.

In contrast to this glorifying of war, Warrior Nation re-introduces us to Canadian hero General Tommy Burns, who fought in both the First and Second World Wars. Burns headed up the then well-staffed and funded Department of Veterans’ Affairs and once dressed up as a homeless old soldier to see how the frontline staff would treat him.  He remembered the stench and brutality of both Wars and never bought into the romanticization of them. More than anyone else, he created our peacekeeping forces.  He had a distinguished career commanding them and later as Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament.

Canada’s peacekeeping role is not presented in this book without flaws.  Canada did provide a useful and valuable service as a middle power or honest broker between two warring superpowers, but its peacekeeping was undermined by the Cold War and corporate interests. The equivocal role played by Prime Minister Lester Pearson is carefully traced and the widely supported peace and ban the bomb movements are portrayed in both their strengths and weaknesses.

Major historical events like the Suez Canal peacekeeping, the long-running involvement in Cyprus, the International Control Commission in Vietnam are all very different, and the evolving power dynamics behind them are important to understanding how we got to the world we live in. In the post Cold War world, we began to see the large-scale shift to the selling of the Warrior Nation.

This would explode in the 1990’s in a fierce political struggle over money and influence, especially in the United States, which would eventually spill over into most Western countries including Canada. Military budgets that had been built up to counter the Soviet threat were no longer sacred cows, and citizens began to discuss peace dividends. This was later described as the decade of darkness by the military and their corporate suppliers and sponsors. Real spending on defense fell, and the failure of peacekeeping efforts to prevent slaughter in the Balkans and Rwanda were disasters for not just humankind but proponents of any form of non-military intervention. 

The last two chapters of the book summarize and demonstrate how the rebranding to Warrior Nation has expanded since then. In Canada the political right has tried to forge a new self-image for Canadians, and at times the evidence of forgery is obvious. The authors describe a network of publicly funded military historians and pressure groups, and lay a lot of the credit or blame at the feet of J.L. Granatstein and David Bercuson as leading spokesmen for the view that peacekeeping is unworthy of a soldier, that an army must be blooded to be worth having. 

The irony of using the slogan “Support Our Troops” while simultaneously shoveling ever-greater sums to the military-industrial complex and not providing inadequate support for troops returning from the Balkans or Afghanistan is important to discuss. Conflict of interest between roles as an accountable ministry and salespeople for armaments industry corporations recur and are rarely dealt with. The shameful smearing of Jack Layton as ‘Taliban Jack’ is remembered, and from  today’s perspective we can see that shouting down reasoned criticism was the driving force.

Warrior Nation does not always make for happy reading, but it is an important and thoughtful contribution to a debate we need to be having.

Special thanks to guest blogger and reviewer: Arthur Carkner
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Workers History Museum

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